The Venice Biennale—for many, a watery pinnacle of the art world calendar—isn’t exactly a place for quiet contemplation. Full disclosure: I’ve never been, but boy oh boy have I seen the gondola-laden Instagram feeds. I have heard about the exorbitant water taxi fees at 4 a.m., about the guest-list jostling, of feet blistered from traipsing from pavilion to pavilion to private viewing. And that’s before we’ve even talked about the art.
For the uninitiated, the Venice Biennale (confusingly) takes place annually, alternating a focus on art and architecture each year. The 58th International Art Exhibition in 2019 sees the Italian city taken over by pavilions, each devoted to a single country’s artist (there are 89 in total this year). Obviously, this means a huge influx of people to the city’s narrow, winding, water-flanked paths. It also means a ton of artworks and artists (and by the nature of the event, countries) are vying for attention—sometimes as much through their PR machines and the branding of the pavilions as their work.
Such a scramble, you would think, might call for pavilion graphic identities that shout their wares like a bellowing Victorian newspaper seller. The branding, exhibition graphics, and printed materials aren’t just serving visitors inside the individual pavilions; they’re trying to get them into said pavilions in the first place, luring them with huge hoardings across the canal; posters; increasingly, carefully strategized social media; and most importantly, tote bags. But bellowing has never really been the MO of London-based studio A Practice for Everyday Life (APFEL), which this year created the identities for not one but two Venice pavilions: Eva Rothschild at the Irish Pavilion and Leonor Antunes at the Portuguese Pavilion.
This isn’t the studio’s first pavilion project (it designed the 2015 Turkish pavilion for conceptual artist Sarkis), but it’s the first year the small studio has worked on two concurrently, all the while navigating the new territories of making work in Europe, for European artists, as London-based creatives within the ongoing political shitstorm of Brexit.
Since APFEL’s founding 15 years ago by Kirsty Carter and Emma Thomas, straight out of their art school MA course, its portfolio has been characterized by work that’s thoughtful, often pared-back, and always striking, for clients including Tate, the Barbican, Studio Voltaire, Lisson Gallery, Kettle’s Yard, and The Whitechapel Gallery. Confident yet minimal, its work eschews ornament and illustrative sensibilities in favor of considered use of physical materials and heavily typographical approaches, with the team often designing bespoke typefaces when the project calls for it.
This smart yet subtle style works perfectly for applications such as exhibition graphics and artists’ books. But in the hubbub of something like the biennale, weren’t they tempted to put all that aside and go gung-ho for impact? “I think you get noticed more sometimes with a more minimal take, because Venice itself is quite a visual city,” Carter says.
Thomas adds: “The designs in Venice need to work clearly across multiple applications. You’ve got signage—a banner on a canal—and you need to be able to read the artist’s name at a distance, and you also need to have consistency so that people will recognize [the artist] in a simple way.”
This, I suggest, must make working on pavilion projects slightly different to those for other cultural clients. Where an individual gallery show will promote certain exhibitions, these often bear the institution’s own branding as much as the individual designs for that temporal event. In Venice, though, pavilions have to think more like commercial branding campaigns: they have to catch the eyes of people who weren’t necessarily looking for them. They also have to work on vast billboards as much as they do on Instagram thumbnails. And like working with a big brand, there are a lot of stakeholders involved, and not just with the artists’ teams: the Venice Art Biennale institution also has to approve all the design work.
Another constraint is time, which again, hinges on varying levels of bureaucratic wrangling. “It can be just a matter of months [before the biennale] that the artist finds out [that they are chosen],” says APFEL. And even then it varies artist to artist. Rothschild, for example, heard the news before Antunes. This also explains something I’d been wondering: since each country’s pavilion is represented by an artist from said country, surely there’s some impetus to commission designers from there, too?
APFEL agrees, but notes that there’s only a short space of time to complete it. “It’s a very short space of time,” says APFEL. “I would think that’s part of what they’d like to do, but it doesn’t always fit. We’ve had a long collaboration with these artists, and on those timelines they need to work with someone they know well. We put together an entire body of work for Eva’s catalog, for instance, and that had to launch the day the biennale opened. If they don’t know the designer well, it won’t marry.”
For APFEL, the artists they’ve worked with this year are those with whom they have longstanding relationships. APFEL previously collaborated with Rothschild on the design of a monograph of her work published by Stuart Shave/Modern Art in 2010, and worked with Antunes on the design of two recent artist’s books. “When you’re working closely with artist, you can really push ideas—you know each other so much better, and each other’s interests, so you can have a much more in-depth conversation about design,” says Carter.
As the title for Leonor Antunes piece, a seam, a surface, a hinge, or a knot, is quite long, APFEL says “we needed to do something pared back and considered.” Thomas adds, “With Leonor, it’s not about an overtly strong, overpowering graphic approach.”
The designs for Antunes’ pavilion identity evolved from Recta, a mid-century Italian typeface, riffing off the fact that her work makes references to that period in Italy. “Her Venice work is about all these cultural reference points, and paying homage to certain artists or figures she feels were insufficiently recognized,” says Thomas. As Antunes told ArtReview, much of her process for the pavilion project involved researching post-war Italian artists, “including Franco Albini and Carlo Scarpa, and with a particular focus on women such as Franca Helg and Egle Trinacanato, both of whom have remained unstudied in the history of museums and exhibitions because they stand outside the processes of canonization.”
For Eva Rothschild’s piece at the Irish Pavilion, titled The Shrinking Universe, APFEL says the designs had to clearly state that she’s representing Ireland (Ireland is not in the UK, and is therefore still part of the EU, unlike Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK with Wales, Scotland and England). APFEL’s graphics were very much intertwined with her broader practice, such as in the tote bag it created for her, which references the gaffer tape used in much of the artist’s work. “The bag was more a collaboration; an extension of a piece,” says Carter.
“It’s about simple but subtle ideas and use of materials.”
For the brochure and typography created for Rothschild, again, typography was pared-back but within clever conceptual twists. “The brochure folds down into a knot [another reference to the artist’s use of materials],” says Thomas. “With the sandy brown bag, though the text is left aligned on most applications, it’s not on the bag, alluding to a physical seam. It works well with the bag and her title; it’s about simple but subtle ideas and use of materials.”
As we’ve stated, working on Venice Biennale projects is a tricky balance: a simple approach would be big, bold PR-pleasing designs; a smart approach is, like APFEL’s, one that discreetly yet intrinsically understands that artist’s work and the potential for their designs to buttress that.
“It’s braver to do something simple and pared-back.”
“At the end of the day, it’s meant to be a presentation, not a fair; but in a way of course, it is a fair—everyone’s showing at the same time for the same duration, so there’s a requirement for graphic design much more so than in any other sort of show,” says Carter. Thomas adds: “You have to think about something specific to [the artist], and doing things that aren’t like what other pavilions are doing. It’s braver to do something simple and pared-back.”
So what’s the trick? “You have to laugh,” says Carter, “but Venice basically becomes a competition about who has the best tote bag.”